WWPD readers have come to expect reports here every time some much-cherished American image of Western Europe (that its women are uniformly thin and chic*; that everyone shops at farmers' markets) receives some critical, contrarian attention. So, for you, a Freakonomics blog post about the less-than-picturesque reality behind Italian agriculture:
Lost in the condemnation of Italian xenophobia, however, is a less obvious but equally important discovery: Italy’s bucolic countryside — the heart of its pristine agrarian image — is sustained by foreign migrants living in, as one official put it, “subhuman conditions.” Those imported canned tomatoes that go into your classic tomato sauce obscure a world of hurt.It seems that two separate issues are at stake. One, there's the question of "subhuman conditions," and of the diminished appeal of food known to have been produced unethically. But it would be inaccurate to say that the American (and perhaps international) fantasy regarding Italian food, as (I think accurately) described in this post, is limited to a belief that Italians pay their workers a living wage. Part of the disillusionment here is, it seems, coming from the fact that the workers behind Italian food are not themselves ethnic Italians, whose families have been in that village since ancient times. Those who dream of Real Italy often want their Italian food made by Real Italians, according to the secret methods passed down from generation to generation. One finds the same issue with discussions of consumption generally - are those who instinctively gravitate to Made in Italy over Made in China reacting to the labor conditions in the two countries, the presumed quality of the goods, the mental image of like-it's-always-been-done craftsmanship, an outright (if undisclosed) irrational preference for Italians rather than Chinese people to make one's stuff, or some combination? Racism, then, or perhaps more precisely xenophobia, is operating on different levels. Americans associate ethnic-Western-European workers with good labor conditions, but it seems the fantasy has a less noble component as well, in at least some instances.
This is not what I want to hear when contemplating the land of slow food, ancient farm houses, rolling vineyards, and leisurely lunches over pasta, bruschetta, mozzarella, and fine wine. It’s not what I want to hear when savoring the near-spiritual identification between Italians and their legendary pastoral landscape, blessed with its inimitable air, soil, and produce.
(Before anyone gets excited and starts a boycott of Italian canned tomatoes, remember that cans in an Italian-looking package could well be a domestic product. They might be produced unethically here in the US, and the can lining might give you hermaphrodite children, but African migrant workers in Italy were not harmed.)